On revolution

The tag line of this blog, “On the revolution in communication,” (up at the top there) came from the essay a lot of people have been talking about: Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable by Clay Shirky, posted online a week ago (March 13). When I read it, it stuck in my brain.

What stuck the most was the analogy he makes between the time around 1500, when the printing press got rolling, and now, when the Internet is really picking up steam. The printing press threw a lot of people for a loop — particularly institutions such as the church. And while society was adapting to the printing press, people had no way of knowing all the ways it would end up changing their lives.

Before he gets to that, he talks a bit about how newspapers first reacted to the Internet:

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!”

This worked for awhile (simply re-printing newspapers in an electronic form and trying to charge for it, before giving up and making it all available for free). But now we’re facing the reality that mass media organizations don’t have a monopoly on the news (my assertion, not his). And this is because the printing press, which is so expensive to set up and which limits competition, is becoming obsolete. Shirky argues that the model whereby advertisers had to go through the newspaper to reach a large number of people — and thus subsidized the journalists at the newspaper — is no longer working.

And thus makes his point:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

My thoughts

Now, I don’t think society is at the point where we don’t need newspapers. Yet.

There are still too many people who aren’t at home on the Internet, who can’t imagine not getting their newspaper. And in places like Saskatoon, I believe they — and the advertisers who want to reach them — will sustain the business model for some time to come. But this is a generational thing and is changing every day. Many of the people under 30 who I know consume the bulk of their information AND entertainment on the Internet. This isn’t a secret.

But what that means is we have some time, here and in other places (but not everywhere, unfortunately), to make the transition, to find something new that sustains the practice of journalism outside of the newspaper (and radio and TV).

Many media organizations and journalists have been loathe to do this, in a serious manner, because we realize we will be giving up our control. We will no longer be the gatekeepers we once were. I believe the future of journalism will be in embracing a new role: instead of top-down content providers, media organizations and/or journalists must become facilitators. The face of news on the Internet is much more social. News organizations have to work to put themselves at the centres of the communities that are springing up online, and this means creating more effective ways to communicate with the readers.

Instead of being gatekeepers, we have to be gateways.

The thing is, we don’t know yet how to construct/facilitate those gateways, in a way that will support the practice of journalism. Shirky argues that amidst all the experimentation going on out there, some models will emerge that will work. Right now, we don’t know what they’ll be.


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